DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers continued their resurgence over the weekend by splitting a series with the best team in the American League. But that couldn’t hide that there are three spots where the team clearly needs to upgrade.
When the Houston Astros got to town Thursday, they were riding a 10-game winning streak and boasted the best record in the AL. That second part is still true, but the Tigers brought Houston’s streak to an end by taking two of four games.
This weekend wasn’t a fluke. Not only did the Tigers sweep Houston on the road earlier this season -- they’ve been playing solid baseball since early May. With a 25-20 record over their last 45 games, the Tigers are proving, at the very least, that they aren’t a pushover.
As the roster improves and the team plays more consistent baseball, the players who aren’t performing start to stand out. During this weekend’s series, some were particularly glaring.
The Tigers were competitive in every Astros game but one, and many could see Thursday’s blowout from a mile away.
Houston owns by far the best offense in baseball, and that lineup was especially hot during what turned into an 11-game winning streak. Obviously, Urena wasn’t the ideal option for the Tigers.
When the Tigers signed Urena this offseason, it was nothing more than an innings-eating move. In 29 games over the past two seasons, Urena owns a 5.25 ERA, a 5.02 FIP and a 1.481 WHIP while striking out just 77 batters in 108 innings.
Urena got off to a solid start this season, but the underlying numbers always screamed “regression!” It was only a matter of time before a high walk rate and low strikeout rate caught up to him.
Well, here we are. Regression has come in hotter than a Shohei Ohtani fastball.
In his last three starts, Urena has allowed 18 earned runs (21 runs overall) in 9.2 innings. He’s allowed 20 hits and eight walks over that span while striking out just six batters. Opponents own a 1.240 OPS, and they’ve only swung and missed at 9% of his pitches.
If three starts isn’t enough of a sample size (it shouldn’t be), go back seven games. Urena has allowed 30 earned runs in 29 innings, including 44 hits, 14 walks and 11 strikeouts. His swinging strike rate is 6% and opponents have a 1.007 OPS.
These last seven starts are a perfect example of why underlying numbers are more predictive than surface results in baseball. From April 11 to May 2, Urena posted a 2.48 ERA across 32.2 innings. The problem: He had 12 walks and 23 strikeouts over that span, with just a 7% swinging strike rate.
Urena isn’t part of the long-term plan for the Tigers, and if both Matt Boyd and Spencer Turnbull were healthy, he likely wouldn’t be in the rotation at this point.
So who could replace Urena? On the MLB roster, Tyler Alexander is someone who could at least give the team a chance to win. His numbers aren’t eye-popping, but he’s averaging a strikeout per inning and doesn’t walk batters.
Drew Hutchison, Wily Peralta and Rony Garcia have been serviceable in Triple-A this season. Maybe they could give the team a few nice outings before Boyd and Turnbull return.
The problem here, as you can see from the uninspiring list of names above, is that the Tigers don’t have much MLB-ready pitching depth in the organization. They’re already filling in for Boyd and Turnbull, so replacing Urena will likely have to wait, as painful as every fifth day has been.
Let’s get this out there from the start: Nobody should be angry that the Tigers took a chance on Mazara. He’s a young player with some potential and didn’t cost anything. It was a worthwhile gamble.
But halfway through the 2021 season, it’s pretty clear Mazara isn’t working out. He’s slashing .207/.280/.324 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 43 games with just nine extra-base hits. Overall, he’s been worth minus-0.3 WAR (wins above replacement).
Unlike with Urena, the Tigers have plenty of replacement options, so it feels like this move could be made any day.
Robbie Grossman and Akil Baddoo have cemented themselves in the Tigers’ outfield, with Daz Cameron coming along nicely, too. Even Eric Haase has shown more than Mazara as a part-timer in left field.
If the Tigers are hesitant to fully commit to a foursome of Grossman, Baddoo, Cameron and Haase, it’s past time to get Derek Hill back up on the MLB roster.
Hill played seven games with the Tigers earlier this year, going 3-for-12 with two walks and three strikeouts. He stole three bases in four attempts and played elite defense.
That’s the thing about Hill: He can’t possibly be worse than Mazara has been at the plate, but he’s a near-lock to deliver Gold Glove-level defense in center field. That’s only going to help young pitchers such as Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize.
This move is an absolute no-brainer. Hill is currently on a minor-league rehab assignment, and in seven games between Lakeland and Toledo, he’s slashing .345/.387/.448 with 10 hits, two walks and eight strikeouts in 29 at-bats.
No, Hill will never be a plus bat. He probably won’t even be an average MLB hitter. But the moment he joins the roster, he’ll improve the outfield defense dramatically and become a weapon on the base paths. Who knows: He might even pop a few homers.
Some people really like Harold Castro. Maybe it’s because he has a .286 career average, or because he had 22 good games in 2020. But the hard truth is “Hittin’ Harold” hasn’t been hitting.
Through 580 career plate appearances, Castro has just 26 extra-bat hits, including six home runs and 24 walks. He owns a .677 OPS (MLB average is around .712 this year, but will likely finish much higher) and minus-1.5 WAR. Yes, he plays every position on the diamond and has the occasional three-hit game. But overall, the contribution isn’t that valuable.
In June, Castro is 4-for-42 with 12 strikeouts and three walks in 13 games. He doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard or draw walks, so when the bloops and bleeders aren’t turning into singles, the slumps can get ugly.
You know who deserves a spot on the roster, and perhaps even the everyday lineup? Zack Short.
This weekend, Short played hero in the Tigers’ first win over the Astros. He went 2-for-2 with a double and a game-winning home run Saturday. He plays excellent defense at shortstop -- something the Tigers desperately need.
Instead of watching Castro or Niko Goodrum struggle to hold down one of the most important defensive positions on the diamond, the Tigers could simply plug Short into the lineup and give him an extended look.
What’s the worst that can happen? Are the Tigers going to miss Goodrum’s .627 OPS and 36.5% strikeout rate? Or Castro’s 39 total bases in 135 at-bats?
Goodrum and Castro have combined for minus-0.9 WAR this season. Short is already at 0.6 WAR in eight games.
The Tigers might have already figured this out, considering Short started the final three games against Houston. But even if he goes through a slump, they shouldn’t cut bait too soon. Short has a plus glove and some offensive upside.